Some resources on early Presbyterianism

Despite the considerable freedom and trust that many of us teachers enjoy in shaping our courses pretty much how we’d like to, it’s pretty difficult, if not irresponsible, to teach a course on Presbyterianism without at least one lecture on John Knox. To neglect this thundering prophet and consummate politician during such a course would be like trying to teach someone about the history of fishing without ever mentioning Izaak Walton. And, of course, those doing research on Knox have much welcomed the recent studies on the sixteenth-century reformer by Rosalind Marshall and that by Richard Kyle and Dale Johnson. And then there is T. F. Torrance’s noble attempt (in Scottish Theology and elsewhere) to make Knox appear as a Barthian after his own image (an attempt, to be sure, which is nowhere near as pathetic as Eric Metaxas’ remarketing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in American evangelical drag). But despite these stimulating studies, I confess that I have simply never found preparing lectures on Knox to be particularly interesting. I certainly expect my students to have a working knowledge of one of their major ecclesiastical grandpas, and of the massive events that led up to the birth of their ecclesial identity in 1560, and of the exciting and formative decades thereafter. And it is true that one simply cannot tell this story with an absent Knox, or, equally importantly, with an absent Andrew Melville. (By the way, Melville is himself the subject of a number of recent and much welcomed studies. See, for example, Steven J. Reid’s impressive volume, Humanism and Calvinism: Andrew Melville and the Universities of Scotland, 1560–1625, and the essay by Ernest R. Holloway III, published as Andrew Melville and Humanism in Renaissance Scotland, 1545–1622, both of which I found enormously helpful in filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of this much underestimated giant of the tradition.)

I recently did some teaching on early Presbyterianism, and was committed – as I increasingly am – to approaching the subject ‘from below’. In my preparation, I draw heavily upon a number of very helpful studies. I want to draw attention to three of those. First, Margo Todd’s The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland. There is no question to my mind that Todd’s is an exceptional study, unmatched in its scope and accessibility, and enormously helpful for gaining a sense of the bigger picture, and that with just the right level of detail so that you feel that you’re not being fed propaganda and/or sloppy work. The macro level vista is both the study’s strength and its greatest vulnerability, for while its overview nature superbly introduces us to themes and challenges associated with the subject, the book does not particularly assist readers to appreciate some of the geographically-specific features at play. In other words, it’s a bit like having a fantastic cookbook on Indian food but which makes little distinction between the Punjabi and Udupi palettes.

With Todd in hand, however, two additional studies assisted me to arrive at the subject with greater detail and a more pronounced awareness of the nuances at work. First, there is the remarkably entertaining Stirling Presbytery Records, 1581–1587 edited by, and with an stunning introduction from, the first-class historian James Kirk. Second, is John McCallum’s revised doctoral dissertation published as Reforming the Scottish Parish: The Reformation in Fife, 1560–1640 (in Ashgate’s St Andrews Studies in Reformation History series). Well researched (he draws mainly on largely-neglected kirk session minutes) and accessible writing presented with helpful charts is always going to be a winner when I’m preparing lectures. McCallum does what Todd doesn’t; namely, place the spotlight onto one region, a region (Fife) which is in many ways, as he argues, a reasonable snapshot – because of the diversity of Fife’s presbyteries and parishes – of the reforms and obstacles to reform that were taking place across the country. And McCallum’s focus on the themes of availability and training of ministers, of discipline (and the role of those ‘genuinely parochial institutions’ known as the kirk session) and of worship helped to bring those infant years of Presbyterianism alive for me, and helped – together with Todd’s and Kirk’s work – to fill in some important gaps in what has been a largely ignored period of the church’s life. I can only hope that additional studies exploring other areas of early Presbyterian life might be undertaken.

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